Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus Congresswoman Katherine Clark (MA-5) and Congressman Hal Rogers (KY-5), co-founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse, released a report exposing that Purdue Pharma L.P. (Purdue) funded organizations, people, and research to influence the World Health Organization (WHO)’s opioid prescribing recommendations. The report reveals that two WHO guidelines released in 2011 and 2012 contain dangerously misleading and, in some instances, outright false claims about the safety and efficacy of prescription opioids. Alarmingly, these guidelines mirror Purdue’s marketing strategies to increase prescriptions and expand sales.
The report uncovers that in 2011, the WHO published a guidance document called Ensuring Balance in National Policies on Controlled Substances, Guidance for Availability and Accessibility of Controlled Medicines that, in addition to other falsehoods, repeats Purdue’s disproven claim that dependence occurs in less than one percent of patients. Then, in 2012, the WHO published a second guidance document called Pharmacological Treatment of Persisting Pain in Children with Medical Illnesses claiming that there is no maximum dosage of strong opioids, like OxyContin, for children. The WHO published this claim despite the fact that U.S. public health agencies had already found that fatal overdoses skyrocket in adult patients who are prescribed above 90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per day.
“The web of influence we uncovered paints a picture of a public health organization that has been manipulated by the opioid industry,” said Congresswoman Clark. “The WHO appears to be lending the opioid industry its voice and credibility, and as a result, a trusted public health organization is trafficking dangerous misinformation that could lead to a global opioid epidemic.” “It’s no secret that Purdue Pharma, fueled by greed, relentlessly and recklessly marketed OxyContin in the United States, even when it became clear the drug was fueling addiction and overdose deaths,” said Congressman Rogers. “While the findings in this report are tragic and alarming, they are unsurprising given this company’s unscrupulous history. The WHO must take action now to right the ship and protect patients around the world, especially children, from the dangers associated with chronic opioid use.”
In addition, it appears Purdue was able to insert their marketing strategies into the WHO by creating and funding front organizations, who participated in research that acted as the foundation for the WHO’s guideline documents. The guidelines are widely available and are currently being distributed as public health best practices and reference material for other publications.
In response to their findings, Clark and Rogers published a letter along with the report directed to the WHO. It calls on the WHO to rescind the two guidelines, provide a comprehensive explanation of why the WHO’s internal controls failed to prevent this scheme, and issue a warning to the world that their 2011 and 2012 guidelines should not be followed.
Clark and Rogers were inspired to look into the connections between the opioid industry and the WHO after the WHO failed to respond to a letter sent by the lawmakers in 2017. The letter warned the WHO that Purdue was attempting to expand their drug sales to international markets using the same fraudulent marketing tactics that instigated the opioid crisis in the United States and that if not stopped, Purdue could create a global opioid crisis.
As is uncovered in the report, by 2017 their relationship with the opioid industry was already well underway.
The report is available online as is the letter to the World Health Organization